Top Ten Movies: 2006

Dans Paris

A lot of revisiting and rediscoveries. For instance, so much of Pan’s Labyrinth is obviously about the creatures that I had pretty darn close forgotten the gripping historical drama that eases in and out of the macabre fantasies. Really, it’s spellbinding in its transitions and dares to question the nature of reality. I mean, what else is history but a long told tale of sorts? And A Prairie Home Companion, a coronation to bookend an idiosyncratic career in an idiosyncratic way, becomes richer as it distances in years. Its misty-eyed farewell never turns to saccharine because like most of Atman’s oeuvre, there’s nothing like its perfect imperfection. I just still feel bad for the crowds that had herded in expecting the radio show. But what a surprise my number one is! Whatever happened to Dans Paris? It came and went with very little fuzz and got shelved to dust. Or who knows! It could be the greatest rave in France to this day. No matter the case, it’s quite the vibrant movie, uncompromising in its manner of vision. It can be as cold and angry as Godard, as playful as Truffaut, and as riveting as any French New Wave film uncovered from the ashes of time. One moment its morose, the next they’re singing, but it never once loses its luster. So at number one it happily pops up.

1. Dans Paris (Christophe Honoré)
2. Pan’s Labyrinth (Guillermo del Toro)
3. A Prairie Home Companion (Robert Altman)
4. The Lives of Others (Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck)
5. Syndromes and a Century (Apichatpong Weerasethakul)
6. Inland Empire (David Lynch) and Brand Upon the Brain! (Guy Maddin)
7. Still Life (Jia Zhangke)
8. The Departed (Martin Scorsese)
9. Lady Chatterley (Pascale Ferran)
10. Colossal Youth (Pedro Costa)

The Lives of Others has become one of those cases of a dignified, intelligent work cast amongst respectfully neglected foreign films whose directors never bloomed as renowned auteurs (i.e. Sundays and Cybele, The Official Story). But its reputation is something I’m glad to continue to somewhat hear about today, even if it’s not as commonly referenced to as when compared to a PT or Wes Anderson movie. Then there’s stuff like Syndromes and a Century, Still Life, and Inland Empire, films all about their director’s visions and inseparable from their creator’s cannons. What can I say? That’s just how cinephile’s memories tend to work (mine included). And without mentioning all of those wonderful movies that I painfully had to exclude – and trust me, there were a lot – I will say that Lady Chatterley and Colossal Youth are nearly three-hour long dramas that rightfully deserve that time to ruminate.

Next post, and at this rate once a month, will be the year 1981. All I can think of is throwing a chair through a window, Mr. William Hurt.

Top Ten Movies: 2009

The White Ribbon It’s the second week in a row that a horror film nabs the top spot in my best of the year list. The third if you include my very first post in a project I’ve begun just a little over a month ago. To be honest, this recurrence comes as a bit of a surprise since I’m not particularly fixated on the genre, or at least not more so than any other. But there’s no denying the brilliance behind Michael Haneke’s The White Ribbon. Every minute of the film is as unsettling as the mysterious crimes committed in this small village set during pre-WWI Germany. From the rigid Protestantism enforced by the townspeople down to the social gatherings of the children, who, you know, you’d think would act like children and stuff, something always appears to be lurking beyond the corners of the frame. Of course, this foreboding tension is never fully realized but why would you want it to when the dread of it all stays with you long after the credits roll. That Michael Haneke can continuously tread familiar territory (i.e. Funny GamesCode Unknown, Caché) and still manage to present a new and disturbing angle towards his philosophy is a merit to his talents as a true auteur, perhaps the best working in the industry today. And so The White Ribbon situates itself as my number one in a year that presents a mixed bag of movies that are as assuredly uncompromising in their vision as they are in their eclecticism.

1. The White Ribbon (Michael Haneke)
2. A Prophet (Jacques Audiard)
3. Inglourious Basterds (Quentin Tarantino)
4. A Serious Man (Joel and Ethan Coen)
5. Bright Star (Jane Campion) and An Education (Lone Scherfig)
6. I Am Love (Luca Guadagnino)
7. Dogtooth (Yorgos Lanthimos)
8. White Material (Claire Denis)
9. Police, Adjective (Corneliu Porumboiu) and The Hurt Locker (Kathryn Bigelow)
10. Wild Grass (Alain Resnais)

Snuck a couple more in there that I just couldn’t ignore. An Education is another picturesque British period piece that, like Bright Star, tackles young love in a unique and vibrant way, not to mention bestowing the film world with a spunky Carey Mulligan whose as light and frothy in the role as a catchy French tune from the early 60’s. Then there’s The Hurt Locker and its well deserved accolades as a raw and relentless portrayal on a subject that all too often gets muddled in the cinema (and just about everywhere else). Tarantino delivers one of his most honed, and therefore one of his best, while the Coen Brothers indulge in what appears to be a passion-piece after the astounding success of their previous efforts in No Country for Old Men.

For those that didn’t make the ranks, 2009 was also a wonderful year for animation. Who would have thought that Disney could have delivered an even more idiosyncratic story in Up than Wes Anderson’s jab at stop-motion? But Fantastic Mr. Fox is indeed fantastic. And so is Avatar, that box office phenomenon which loses more than its scope when viewed on a small screen, especially when compared to the unwavering originality of Dogtooth or the complex moral gradations of Police, Adjective, big screen or not.

And the heavies? Andrea Arnold had Fish Tank, revitalizing the British kitchen sink realism from yonder years. Tom Ford had A Single Man, which is a gorgeously photographed drama that never attains the reach it originally sets it eyes on. And Martin Scorsese had Shutter Island, a film I wish I liked better than what I truthfully did. Add two foils from Soderbergh, The Informant and The Girlfriend Experience, Werner Herzog’s Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call – New Orleans, and Pedro Almodóvar’s luscious Broken Embraces, and you’ve got yourself a year. Oh, and Antichrist too, whose first ten minutes gave me just enough of an inclination about the rest of the movie to not really want to finish it. And believe me, I’ve heard the stories.

Next Week: 1952. What a glorious feeling!

Top Ten Movies: 1973

Don't Look Now There’s often much talk about the ending of Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now. Just who exactly is this mysterious figure? Why does she do what she does? And what could it all necessarily mean? Having recently watched the film a second time around, I’ve come to the conclusion that it really doesn’t matter. What I do remember is that scene early in the movie when a father grips the body of his lifeless daughter and carries her to shore. The wail of despair in his echoed voice as he comes to the realization that she’s drowned. I also remember a mother attempting to come to terms with her child’s death, and how that in turn affects her marriage with her husband. But the strange thing about this all is that none of it is ever directly addressed. Nicolas Roeg somehow manages to leave an indelible impression about the movie’s sense of dread by not really leaving anything at all. He plays with time and space, dissects it, twists it around, and ends up giving you the story in a radically new way, where the fragmented pieces coalesce to make better sense of the character’s state of loss and grief through ellipses than any conventional narrative could ever deliver. If it all sounds like a puzzle, then maybe it is. But then again so is the movie, mounting its way up to my number one spot by trumping another dazzling display of formalism told through a young girl’s perspective.

1. Don’t Look Now (Nicolas Roeg)
2. Badlands (Terrence Malick)
3. Amarcord (Federico Fellini)
4. The Long Goodbye (Robert Altman)
5. Day for Night (Francois Truffaut)
6. O Lucky Man! (Lindsay Anderson)
7. The Spirit of the Beehive (Víctor Erice)
8. Mean Streets (Martin Scorsese)
9. Scenes from a Marriage (Ingmar Bergman)
10. Pat Garret and Billy the Kid (Sam Peckinpah)

Elliot Gould and Malcolm McDowell offer up a couple of tour de force performances that are as much about their personalities as they are about their talents, which work wonderfully well because the two of them are just so damn likable. Then there’s Fellini’s Amarcord and Truffaut’s Day for Night, both of whose warmth and endearing look into the past are like a breath of fresh air in a year – hell, a decade – where the movies often threw out genre conventions and opted for ambiguously bleak endings. The Spirit of the Beehive is a Spanish landmark directed by an underrated filmmaker whose body of work is as sparse and whose reputation as elusive as Terrence Malick’s. And then we have Pat Garret and Billy the Kid just nipping it above a couple of other potential films by offering as much insight and texture for James Coburn’s Pat Garret as that of the infamous but admittedly “been done” treaded ground of the gunslinging Kid.

Those that just missed the lower rungs include Jean Eustache’s The Mother and the Whore, which I have stored in my mind in a horribly truncated and poorly subtitled print that doesn’t do its reputation justice. Two solid American New Wave staples, Serpico and Scarecrow, that make a case for Al Pacino as actor of the year. Hal Ashby had the hilariously foul-mouthed The Last Detail, while Paul Mazursky warped the rules of the romantic comedy with Blume in LoveAmerican Graffiti introduced the world to George Lucas, and John Frankenheimer’s The Iceman Cometh is quite possibly the best adaptation of any Eugene O’Neill play set to film.

Then there’s Senegal’s Djibril Diop Mambéty and his masterful Touki Bouki with a Josephine Baker score you’d swear was handed to the filmmakers on scratched vinyl. India had Ritwik Ghatak’s A River Called Titas, now gorgeously restored by the Criterion Collection. And the Netherlands had Paul Verhoeven’s Turkish Delight, a commercial success that established Verhoeven’s name at home and one to look out for overseas.

Below those films are a couple of Hollywood soft spots that nabbed a few Oscars along the way (i.e. The Sting, The Way We Were, and a personal favorite of mine, Paper Moon). Some gritty U.S. of A. crime dramas: Charley Varrick, The Friends of Eddie Coyle, and The Outfit, balancing out some horror turns from the likes of Romero, Friedkin, and De Palma – The Crazies, The Exorcist, and Sisters respectively. Blaxploitation films gave us two kick ass female leads – Coffy and Cleopatra Jones – while cult favorites like Enter the Dragon, The Wicker Man, and Jesus Christ Superstar would soon find their audiences. Seal it off with a couple of eccentric sic-fi quirks, Fassbinder’s World on a Wire and Michael Crichton’s Westworld, and you’ve got yourself quite the crammed year.

Next week: 2009. A good time as any to pull out that Jefferson Airplane album of mine.

Inside Llewyn Davis, Bob Dylan, and Folk Music

No Direction Home

Earlier this year I had the fortune of watching Martin Scorsese’s wonderfully entertaining and revelatory documentary “No Direction Home.” It provides an in depth look into the life of Bob Dylan from his youth growing up as Robert Allen Zimmerman in Hibbing, Minnesota, up until his transition to rock music in the mid-1960’s. Part of the American Masters series on PBS, which is always awe-inspiring in its ability not only capture the heart and soul of their subjects but somehow decipher their mercurial essence, it paints a comprehensive portrait of a young man thrust upon events as if ordained. Born thirty years after the Greenwich Village scene, I was surprised to see just how young he really was. The image of a grand scale social movement deriving from hauntingly profound lyrics were written by a small, wiry-haired twenty year old with a terribly shy and nervous demeanor. He existed as the walking riddle that spurned his songs.

But what I found equally rewarding in the documentary was the detailed coverage addressing the folk movement thriving at that time. I knew little to nothing about folk music, so to discover the names of iconic figures such as Pete Seeger was a treasure I hold dear today. Still green with knowledge, I’ve learned about the wonderful musicians that paved the way and influenced the artists I have admired as their folk-rock successors.

Greenwich Village In The 1950s (7)

And yet, there was something else happening in the documentary as seen through the nameless photographed faces of youngsters and their guitars. Bob Dylan was no doubt one of hundreds, if not thousands of musicians living the life of the bohemian/beat that Ginsberg so passionately praised. They must have been individuals that carried their real estate in their hand, going from place to place each night in hopes of finding warm shelter. They suffered and sang while the freezing cold nights and lonely vagabond days fueled their music. So there’s a beauty to their sadness when they’re discovered and appreciated. But what a tragedy for the countless number that get cast away into the shadows of the alleys. Not surprisingly, it reminds me of a folk song that they must have played some nights at a bar or joint where others like them gathered together. “It takes a worried man to sing a worried song.” And no doubt, it takes a sad man to sing a sad song. It requires digging deep into the dark places of your soul in order for the emotions to rise. Folk music is timely because of that authenticity. So when hundreds come and ago for one Bob Dylan to succeed, the music world loses more than a voice. A torched spirit lit by melancholy dissipates into the recesses of the darkness it channeled, like swallowing a black abyss that knots in your throat. And yet, it spirit finds its way into the music of others. The genre grows with every unsung chord hit and every melody fading into obscurity. “If it was never new, and it never gets old, then it’s a folk song.” It’s a sad life for Llewyn Davis because a talent and potential goes unrecognized. And the tragedy is definitely palpable. But what he leaves behind makes folk music richer and a movie steeped in sadness gleam with hope for the hundreds that will follow down his path and the handful that will become a vessel to them all.

picture-of-oscar-isaac-in-inside-llewyn-davis-large-picture

Here’s a link to the Kingston Trio’s rendition of “A Worried Man:”